Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Conversation with Adam Valuckas, Filmmaker


Michele Yamazaki from Toolfarm talks with indie filmmaker, Adam Valuckas, about his war film, Panzer Corps. Adam was the auteur on this film: directing, shooting, co-writing the screenplay, producing and handling the post-production. Adam gives some insight about what goes into making a film and shares some lessons learned along the way.

Panzer Corps Trailer

Michele Yamazaki: Hi Adam. What was your inspiration for the film? Why did you make the film?

Adam Valuckas: For me, Panzer Corps grew out of the need to do something creative. I was working for Comcast doing slews of local commercials. I found at the end of the week I couldn't remember what shoots I had gone on and what I edited. It was one big boring blur of uncreative work.

I'm going to sound like I'm eight, but I wanted to do something creative with guns and lots of them! One effects test lead to another then to another and it grew almost out of control. Soon I had a living room full of boxes with uniforms and fake guns, helmets, grenades (fake of course) and other assorted shenanigans. My friends joked that I had to be on a FBI or AFT list; the UPS guy always had a quizzical look on his face.

MY: Oh, haha, I hope not!

AV: My roommate, Matt Conlon (college film bro and later assistant producer/ 1st AD for Panzer Corps), wrangled me in to finish the script. Then Jeff Leaman (another college film bro and later Producer for Panzer Corps), and I set into finishing the script.

MY: It seems like an extensive undertaking.

panzerAV: "Extensive undertaking" are two perfect words to describe the making of Panzer Corps. I keep questioning why I didn't just make a comedy or a drama set in someone's apartment. I was thinking about the script and how to blow stuff up, how to make war set dressings, CGI stuff and the list keep going on. It was painful, but a good pain like working out, finally I was feeling creative and the burden was a pleasant byproduct.

MY: You wrote the screenplay, directed, did the effects, etc.

AV:I co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Leaman but I did direct, production manage, shoot, edit, do the VFX, post sound, website, marketing, etc... I am so thankful that the cast and crew were there and did amazing things but I wish I could have paid for them to take some time off. A one man show is never as good as a group of talented people. Sorry, i just ranted. :)

MY: How long have you been making films?

panzerAV:This is my first film since college and my first real narrative film oddly. I have been a videographer for ten years directing, shooting and editing commercial, corporate, and web videos. I'm good at a lot of things but not a "God" at anything. But I can do just about anything, you can give me a silver star sticker if you like. Kidding, but I won't stop you.

MY: How did you get the idea for Panzer Corps? Was it based on a true story?

AV: Panzer Corps originally was going to be a fan film based on a Japanese film called Jin Roh. In that film Japan is occupied by the Germans after WWII (fiction) instead of the Americans (nonfiction). But the film really doesn't get into the Whys and Hows but instead shows what happens after the occupation. Long story short Tokyo is guarded by the Panzer Corps, which are some heavily armed guys wielding MG42s (what Muller uses in the first half of the final battle).

Before I had the urge to make a war film, I was getting into armoring as a hobby to escape from the computer. In the midst of banging on metal I decided to make a suit of armor from Jin Roh. Then I decided to make a fan film and after several scripts I realized that a fan film was going to limit the possibilities of where the film could play. It took a long time to go from the idea of a fan film to Panzer Corps which is entirely different.

Some people have asked why I didn't change the name of the film (Panzer Corps) since it was no longer a fan film or about tanks (German tanks are called Panzers), at this point the website was drawing in a decent crowd so it seemed foolish to change the name. Yeah, there are no tanks in the film, sorry to break anyone's heart.

MY: What was your pre-production process?

AV: Pre-production was a blur of activity for myself. I was still gathering props, rewriting the script with my co-writer and the seconds were ticking off faster than I wanted. I was thinking about the film so much that my girlfriend at that time broke up with me (over the phone!) while we were filming. Good riddence! Sorry, that just got personal. *laughing* But I really didn't care I was making a film and no gal or employer was going to stop me! The boy's fantasy stays alive.

MY: Good for you for sticking with it! Did you block everything out while shooting to match your storyboards?

AV: The final battle scene was storyboarded three or four times, then after we setup the dragons teeth and the concertina wire everything had to change. In the end it worked out great, but I felt crushed, all that planning gone to waste. The cast and I went to the final battle location reading the script and blocked off who should be where for what line. I created a diagram of where each person should be for each line of dialogue. There are three guys flanking undercover fire to assault a fortified bunker, here is the first part of that sequence.

Side by side effects comparison

Short story, a few weekends before the shoot I went to scout our location (15 acres of woods) to plan each scene. I was told there was were black bears in the woods but I didn't really think I was going to see one. There I am walking armed only with an orange vest and script when a bear who was about 5 feet from me bolted away from me (oh, thank God) and I have to say, I ran. I ran hard and long before I stopped. It wasn't even like I thought "hey that bear could rip your arms off perhaps you should turn back", no, I found my body running and my head just happened to be attached. Thank you fight or flight instinct.

MY: Unreal! Glad you survived! What was the rest of your filming experience like?

AV: Filming was awesome, the crew were my friends and the cast became new friends. I really enjoyed my actors, two of them were Army Ranger Captains and one was a Marine. I looked to them for realism and how we could bend that into something that looked good on screen. When you watch these guys move you can see their training and combat experience.

Filming was a big camping trip, we stayed up late, slept in the fresh air, woke up bright and early, worked hard all day, it was great!

MY Sounds like a fantastic experience. What did you shoot and edit with? Were there things you liked or disliked about the equipment?

AV: I shot with my trusty XL1s with a manual lens on a Fig Rig. Panzer Corps was actually shot 100% with the Fig Rig, I liked that it wasn't rock steady like a steady cam but smoothed the hand held movements. While I loved the movement of the camera it made the job of tracking the footage for VFX a big deal.

We used a Sennheiser ME66 mic into a mixer then into the camera. The whole thing was about as low tech as it could get. And since everything was shot using available lighting except for the one night time scene, we were able to move from shot to shot with no setup time.

For editing I used an Apple G5 dual 2.0 who is still graceful in her old age, and two G-Drives (the second drive was a backed). Once again, about as low tech as you can get.

Dislikes, for editing, I could have used more ram at least. Also I bought Mocha for Shake (from Toolfarm!) this holiday which would have saved me hundreds of hours of pain. *shaking head*. Hindsight.

MY: Well, I'm glad you have it now!

AV: Dislikes for shooting... It would have been great to shoot on some form of HD, have a budget for a generator and lights, pay my crew, bear repellent, more time, more money, toilets, showers, and a cot.

MY: I thought it was interesting that you mentioned that it was originally in German and dubbed to English, yet my guess is that it was shot in English (or you're the master of lip-sync!) Can you talk about the decision to mention that it was in German originally?

AV: Hahaha, thank you, but it was shot in English. Initially we had this grand idea to emulate 'The Hunt for Red October'. After trimming and trimming the film on paper, on set, then while editing there were only two German lines before the transition into English. That is how the "German and dubbed to English" came about. In retrospect, I should have shot this film from an American's point-of-view OR had money to hire German speaking actors. Again, hindsight.

MY: It is 20:20, they say. We noticed in the beginning that you used a lot of old footage then matched in with the style. Were there any special lighting considerations or anything else in the shoot that you needed to take into account in pre or post production to match that look?

AV: Everything was shot using available light except for the campfire scene because of the lack of power. Once I got everything on the timeline I made a simple "color correcting" pass adjusting my levels to broadcast safe.

Funny enough the opening stock footage came pretty late in the editing process, we knew there was going to be opening footage but we hadn't found it. When my producer and I got back from the National Archives I realized how gray the whites were from the historical footage. Taking a cue from that I dropped the whites giving the film a flatter look.

When I got closer to finishing the film I used a test clip to compare film grains from After Effects and Shake. A small group of us watched a looping DVD silently casting votes for what grain structure we liked the most, and in the end After Effects won which surprised even myself. I thought Shake was going to be the winner but even I picked an AE filter. With a nice layer of grain over the historical footage combined with our footage the two pieces came together nicely.

MY: Can you talk a bit about the visual effects? Did you use plug-ins? Stock footage? Homemade effects?

Let me break this up a bit.

Stock Footage: I used stock footage from Detonation Films and NoControl Cinema, each offer HD libraries - gravity of dirt explosions, fire, bullet hits, blood gushes, smoke, and all sorts of destruction goodness.

Bob from Detonation Films is one heck of a guy, in my mind he made it possible for us little guys to make a film with big time effects. Perhaps lesser known but equally as great is Marco von Moos from NoControl Cinema, his footage is fantastic. And Andrew Kramer, After Effects God of Video Copilot offers Action Movie Essentials. At least once a week I tell a new filmmaker about these guys.

Plug-ins: (in no particular order)

Trapcode Shine: Trapcode's Shine is amazing, I wanted to have light rays in the film, but without power for lighting and fog it just wasn't going to happen. Shine has fooled every film person I have shown the film to, it is absolutely beautiful.

RE:Vision Effects DE:Noise: Unfortunately I shot part of one scene using camera gain (+18 db!) because we were running out of light... I tried the filters in Final Cut but DE:Noise is way better, the difference is staggering, in fact.

MuzzlePlug from FXHome: This plug-in creates muzzle flashes in a 3D environment for After Effects, this combined with muzzle smoke stock footage looks pretty darn slick.

Trapcode Particular: I created the shell casings using Particular. I knew they had to be generated in '3D' so I could angle them correctly. I was doing tests with Apple's Motion adding behaviors like gravity but it didn't want to play nice. My anger drove me to buy this awesome plug-in.

Wondertouch particleillusion 3: While Particular is more sophisticated nothing beats the huge preset libraries and Pro Emitters from particleillusion. I used Eclectic 1 and 2 and the Pyro 1 and Pyro 2 Pro Emitter packs for extra debris.

RE:Vision Effects ReelSmart Motion Blur: I used ReelSmart motion blur inside Shake to add motion blur to my particles. First off I think it looks better and second I could change the amount of motion blur in Shake without having to reexport an After Effects project (versus using an AE blur).

Red Giant Magic Bullet Frames: The 'film' was shot in 60i, knowing that it was going to be converted into 24p. So, it was much better than the XL1s' frame mode!

Red Giant Magic Bullet Instant HD: When I transfer Panzer Corps to digibeta I think I'm going to uprez the footage to HD. I haven't tested this out yet.


I wanted to composite in Shake. The node tree made it a lot easier to envision in what order the effects would be introduced into the shot versus using precomp after precomp. I did a few tests before starting the film but this was my first real try at composting, so if this makes you gag I apologize.

MY: Are you kidding? You can't even tell that you used effects for the majority of the film.

AV: This was my effects pipeline:

  1. Export an uncompressed shot from Final Cut Pro.
  2. Generate the muzzle flashes using MuzzlePlug and shell casings with Particular in After Effects using the shot from Final Cut as reference.
  3. Export the muzzle flash and casings each in their own Quicktime with an alpha channel.
  4. Make a Shake project.
  5. Track the footage using a DAMN pixel tracker (I wish I had mocha then)
  6. Rough composite the Muzzle Flash After Effects with stock footage
  7. Rough composite the shell casings
  8. Add any rotomasks
  9. Start tweaking
  10. Hours later export an uncompressed file, import into FCP
  11. Smoke a cigarette.
  12. Move to the next shot.
  13. Week later hate the shot, spend more hours tweaking.

MY: So how much of the film is actually effects?

AV: There were 123 special effects shots, in nine days I got a 'spine' of the effects done. I ended up fixing every shot over then next few months. I really have to thank my buddy Captain Morgan for helping me with all the VFX, he is a swell guy. Sadly, he was unaccredited in the film.

MY: I hear the Captain is quite good with After Effects. So how did you finish the film?

AV: Remember I'm on an older Apple G5. I exported film from Final Cut as an uncompressed file, that took about 8 hours (the film is 16 minutes). I added Red Giant's Frames in After Effects and film grain, that was 50 hours! And then compressing the first DVD was about 6 hours. I've done this twice now...

MY: As soon as you can afford it, you might want to consider upgrading your hardware. For your own sanity, if nothing else! :-) Did you utilize any green screen or blue screen?

AV: I didn't but I did a test with my roommate on blue screen. Below is my first Shake project :)

Panzer Corps Test 2

MY: What did you learn about filmmaking while making the movie?

AV: Oh wow, Michele. In post-production I was learning Apple's Shake as I went along. I would composite all day and take tutorials at night and apply those lessons to the next day's shots. Post felt like I was wrestling a bear, I was on top holding him in a headlock. He wanted to kill me, *laughing*, I had gotten myself in way too deep but I had to finish. I could go back and fix something in every shot but I gave myself a deadline and I kept to it for the most part. Later I trimmed 2 minutes to help speed up the film.

I'll just list stuff in a nonsensical list:
Marketing, SEO (search engine optimization), various compression standards, multiple plug-ins, how to punk youtube kids, preproduction with google aps, air cannons, guns, ebay scammers, motion tracking, keying, music rights, where to buy anything, working 3D space, analytics, headers, film festivals submissions, what your friends will do for you, film auditions, fliers, Amazon S3, social network sites, answering nice emails, answering a-hole emails, how to borrow money from your grandma, how to steal to pay back, sense of humor, really this list would go for a long while.

Needless to say this whole project was a learning experience. I learned as many things to not do as things worth doing.

MY: What do you hope to accomplish with the film?

I am submitting to festivals right now, if you have an "in" let me know! I just want to someone to see it, if Panzer Corps wins an award I might learn how to do a back flip.

I am sending to festivals now and I have to say this is the worst part, the waiting. I think once Panzer Corps makes it's way into a festival everything will be worth it. At this point I have spent so much time, money, and thought into something where I know every flaw. It is the bane of every filmmaker I guess, you can't sit back and see what is good about it, I think you need someone else to see it and to relay that to you.

MY: What would you like the audience to take from it?

AV: You ask a good question, the audience. Mainly to not hate it, second to like it, third, to understand the film is about one person standing up to orders and ideologies, and doing the right thing.

Here is the real hard part, finding your home. I know I haven't made the next Saving Private Ryan but it Panzer Corps isn't crap either... Well, I hope not! So when you're in the running with thousands of other filmmakers all hoping to emerge and be seen sometimes you wish you could skip forward a year to see what happened, did it your film get accepted and where, did it fail? But then I would miss the payoff.

MY: What advice do you have for other aspiring filmmakers?

AV: I will give you a pro and a con:

Pro: The world of filmmaking is the best as it has ever been. Today, you can own a camera, a way to edit and show it to the world for almost nothing! You can make a film that the whole world can see! Five years ago that was impossible, think about that!

Con: Everyone can make a film now. What do you do now? Make more films, make every project better than the last, explore new medias, learn new techniques and software, expand. Filmmaking is like drumming, it is easy to do it badly. So, do it well.

MY: If you don't mind me asking, what was your budget? We have a lot of young filmmakers who would like to create a film like this and have no idea.

AV: No problem, the working budget was somewhere around $3000 and it should be about $5000 after festivals (minus travel). The biggest expenses were the props, food, stock footage and sound effects. Panzer Corps is not a historically correct film, it is a 'what if' film. With that in mind I was able to use props that could conceivably be from that time. Such as their uniforms are not what a WWII German paratrooper would wear, the helmet is right but everything else is fictitious. The missile should about 20 feet longer, their radios are modern, etc., but people only call me out on the obvious like the AK47 assault rifle, then I point out the film is set in 1953.

My advice to young filmmakers is to make a film in modern day but if you're going to do something historical keep the cast to a minimum. If you want to outfit troops in proper gear you would burn through a small budget in a heartbeat.

MY: What are you working on at the moment?

AV: Getting Panzer Corps into a festival, I think I may wait a year to start a new project unless I can quit my job to take on a new one.

Michele, thank you for the interview. I really admire Toolfarm, this has been an honor for me. I have spent many hours on Toolfarm's site and your customer service is top notch!

MY: Thanks for saying so. We strive for great customer service. Thank you for the interview too. It has been very interesting and educational. Best of luck in the film festivals.


Microfilmmaker Magazine has a review of Panzer Corps that will be published on Feb 1, 2009. Also, be sure to check out the official website for Panzer Corps for lots of behind the scenes photos and even tutorials on how to make the effects from the film.

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